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Image: Archi Banal
Image: Archi Banal

ScienceOctober 10, 2021

The dos and don’ts of storing face masks

Image: Archi Banal
Image: Archi Banal

Masks are as essential as your keys, phone and wallet these days, and together with vaccines are our ‘armour’ against Covid-19. But how should we treat them – and is striving for perfection really necessary?

The intercom rings. A courier is on the other end carrying a parcel with my name on it. My eyes dart to my desk and find my apartment keys and a face mask. The keys clink in my pocket, the face mask awkwardly reminds me of my coffee breath as I head down to collect whatever it is I thought I needed (or wanted). I return, remove my mask and admittedly – almost carelessly – add it to the mess already cluttering my desk. At least I have the presence of mind to tidily fold it in half.

Where should we keep masks when we’re not clicking and collecting, grocery shopping, picking up takeaways? Is it OK to hang them from our car rear-view mirrors? Does bunching them up in our pockets make them less effective? How often should we swap them out?

Dr Nitasha Rimar, an endocrinologist and physician based in Northland, recommends storing masks in a bag (plastic or paper is fine, or one made from a breathable, washable mesh fabric). Make sure you wash your hands, put on or remove your mask by touching only the ear loops, and if putting it away, fold it in half so only the exterior layer is exposed.

While pockets or handbags are other options for when you’re out and about, Rimar cautions against storing masks in car glove compartments or glasses cases – the closed environments and their repeated use might increase the risk of contamination. Car rear-view mirrors aren’t ideal either. Conditions within vehicles are often in a state of flux, which can alter a mask’s efficacy. The physician is aware those situations are subjective calls, and says tucking masks into pockets, handbags or a plastic/paper/cloth bag are better alternatives.

Rimar has been impressed by how well New Zealanders have complied with mask use rules since she and her family moved here in February from San Diego, California – a major city in the state’s south where one in 10 people were thought to have been infectious at one point, she says. “Simply stepping outside my door to go check the mail was terrifying, especially before becoming vaccinated, and so it’s really changed our world, unfortunately. But I think there are many things we can do and mask use is really one of those.”

Endocrinologist and physician Dr Nitasha Rimar (Photo: Supplied)

Dr Lucy Telfar Barnard says people doing their best is good enough, and if they can think of ways to improve their mask use, then even better. Perfection is the enemy of good. “‘Perfect’ would probably be some version of what Ebola workers wear in the field, and a decontamination unit between your front gate and your front door. I am not doing that. Nobody is doing that.”

Telfar Barnard, a senior researcher at Otago University’s Wellington campus, says how we treat our masks comes down to what will work for us and our whānau, and then doing the best you can to stop any bit of the virus that might be unwittingly breathed out from floating through the air into the lungs of others, and vice versa.

Worry more about the fit of your mask, how many layers of fabric it has to filter the surrounding air and whether you can breathe comfortably rather than whether you’ve kept your mask sealed in a plastic bag. “​​Yes, there’s potentially someone else’s virus sitting on the front of the mask when you’ve worn one round other people,” she says. “But the risk from the front of your mask is much less than the risk from the virus in the air if you hadn’t been wearing it.”

Hanging masks from the car rear-view mirror or from coat hooks in the hallway can serve as a handy visual prompt to remind people not to leave their car or house without putting on their mask. Storing reusable masks in a glasses case is OK so long as the nose wire (if you have one) isn’t bent out of shape, says Telfar Barnard. Nose wires help masks sit snugly around the bridge of your nose, the researcher says, ensuring people inhale and exhale through the mask rather than from the gaps around the mask’s edges. They also help stop glasses from fogging up.

Have a pile of masks, if possible, not just to prevent transmission but for comfort and skin health. Masks absorb oils and bacteria from our skin, become uncomfortably damp from absorbing moisture from our breath, and get smelly if not washed, so regularly swapping out used masks for clean ones and washing them is important, she says. A home system where used masks are kept separate from clean ones is key and a mask bag or a designated spot can work when you’re in your car.

Just don’t forget to take them inside to wash when you get home, and place used masks either in your laundry basket, straight in the washing machine or, if you wash them by hand, in the bathroom sink. “It might help to think of masks in the same way as underwear,” Telfar Barnard says. “Where would you put a pair of underwear in your car or home after you’ve worn them?” Not everyone will have enough masks to swap them in and out. “That comes back to just doing the best you can. And we’ve all had times we’ve left the laundry too late and had to find our cleanest pair of underwear to wear again.”

A nose-wired mask bunched up in your pocket is, on balance, “probably not ideal”. While acknowledging she hasn’t seen it tested, Telfar Barnard says scrunching up a mask may put kinks in the nose wire, create creases in the fabric that reduce its fit, and may put extra stress on the fabric, potentially affecting its longevity. “All that said, I wouldn’t recoil in horror if I saw someone pull a crinkled mask out of a pocket and put it on before they approached me. It’s still better than no mask at all.”

Rimar says masking will go hand-in-hand with vaccines in protecting us against Covid. Vaccines help prevent people from requiring hospital care and from dying, but even the vaccinated, albeit to a lesser extent than the unvaccinated, can occasionally become infected with the virus and pass it on. That’s where face masks come into play. “These measures are going to be your armour and protection, [for] both ourselves and those around us, to fight this awful virus.”

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